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How Alcohol Might Affect Your Dementia Risk

Alcohol Alzheimer's Dementia

Moderate drinking is unlikely to affect the risk of developing dementia in healthy older men and women, according to a new report. Heavier drinking, however, may present concerns for brain health, particularly for older adults who already have memory problems.

For the study, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and other institutions looked at 3,021 elderly men and women, most of them in their late 70s. All were free of dementia at the start of the study, though 473 had mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, a type of memory loss that sometimes progresses to full-blown dementia.

The researchers followed them for about six years, performing regular assessments of memory and thinking skills. They also had detailed self-reports from the participants about how many alcoholic beverages they drank in a given day or week.

Among the 2,548 study participants who were free of memory or thinking problems at the start of the study, those who drank moderately, defined as 7 to 14 drinks a week [any type I guess?], were less likely to develop dementia than those who drank more heavily or those who drank less than 1 drink a week. Among the moderate drinkers, those who drank a little on a daily basis were less likely to develop dementia than those who occasionally binged on two or more drinks.

Alcohol was potentially more problematic for the 473 men and women in the study with mild cognitive impairment, about half of whom reported drinking at least some alcohol. Among this group, those who drank heavily, more than 14 drinks a week, were more likely to progress to full-blown dementia than those who drank less than 1 drink a week. These heavier drinkers also tended to score lower on tests of memory and thinking skills as the study progressed.

The study’s findings suggest that moderate drinking in elderly adults with or without memory problems does not significantly affect the risk of developing dementia. So for healthy people who are moderate drinkers, it’s likely fine to continue to drink moderately. It will neither increase, nor decrease, your risk of developing dementia.

The national Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that healthy adults aged 65 and older limit their drinking to no more than three drinks on any given day, or seven drinks in a week. A standard drink is generally defined as 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content), 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content), 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content) or 1.5 ounces or a “shot” of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (such as gin, rum, vodka or whiskey).

This study suggests that if may be best to spread out your moderate drinking over time, rather than drinking more heavily on certain days.

Importantly, a recent analysis that pooled data from earlier studies on alcohol and dementia risk found that moderate drinking may lower the risk of dementia, with a peak beneficial effect at about 4 drinks a week. Those who completely abstained from alcohol were at higher risk of dementia, as were those who drank 23 drinks a week or more.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Manja Koch, PhD; Annette L. Fitzpatrick, PhD; Stephen R. Rapp, PhD; et al: “Alcohol Consumption and Risk of Dementia and Cognitive Decline Among Older Adults With or Without Mild Cognitive Impairment.” JAMA Network Open, Sept. 27, 2019

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